A recently completed BioCycle survey identified a total of 185 full-scale food waste composting facilities in the U.S.
BioCycle January 2019
BioCycle recently completed a survey to quantify and analyze full-scale food waste composting infrastructure in the U.S. The project was done as part of a grant from U.S. EPA Region 4 (Southeast region) to the Composting Collaborative (see box). BioCycle contracted with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) to conduct the data collection.
BioCycle defines a full-scale facility as a municipal or commercial facility equipped to receive and process organic waste streams arriving by truckload volumes from generators and haulers on a year-round basis. This is in contrast to “captive” and “community” composting sites, which BioCycle defines as follows:
Captive: Exclusively composts its own organics, utilizing the compost on-site.
Community: Small-scale operation that enables community members to manage organic material on a neighborhood scale, e.g. at community garden or urban farm. Accepts feedstocks, e.g., food scraps, from off-site. Seeks to keep organics in a closed loop (e.g., neighborhood), from source of feedstocks to use of compost.
BioCycle and ILSR compiled a Master List of full-scale composting facilities in the U.S. using data from the following sources: the BioCycle FindAComposter.com portal; facilities identified during the 2017 BioCycle Food Waste Collection Access study; BioCycle editorial archives; and USCC’s directory of STA certified compost manufacturers that accept food waste. State officials were asked to update facilities identified in their states. These updates were incorporated into the final Master List. Ultimately, a total of 300 food waste composting facilities were on the final Master List. In spring 2018, a link to the survey questionnaire was emailed to all identified full-scale food waste composting facilities in the U.S.
After several reminders were sent to those not completing the questionnaire, BioCycle created a “mini-survey” (6 questions vs. 48 on the full survey) to increase responses. Ultimately, 103 full-scale food waste composting facilities responded with information.
The last step of BioCycle’s data collection process was to verify, via facility websites and news articles primarily, which of the remaining facilities on the Master List are operating full-scale food waste composting sites. A total of 82 facilities were confirmed to still be operating and accepting food waste. Table 1 summarizes BioCycle’s final tallies. The total confirmed number of full-scale food waste composting facilities in the U.S., based on 2018 data, is 185.
BioCycle’s full report is available as a downloadable PDF at both BioCycle.net and CompostingCollaborative.org. Figures 1-6 summarize responses to some of the survey questions. Each figure indicates the total number of full-scale food waste composting facilities that responded to the question:
• Figure 1: Number of full-scale facilities in the U.S. taking food waste — state-by-state summary. Includes responses to BioCycle questionnaire and facilities confirmed via other methods.
• Figure 2: Allowed feedstocks within permit or state registration category. These include all organic waste streams including yard trimmings, food waste, food-soiled paper and compostable products that are allowed to be received under the facility’s regulatory category. Allowed feedstocks at those facilities checking “other” include wood debris, livestock manure, seafood by-products, short paper fibers.
• Figure 3: Accepted feedstocks. Indicates all organic waste streams that the full-scale food waste composting facility is actually accepting and composting (versus what the facility is allowed to take under its regulatory category). Accepted feedstocks at those facilities checking “other” include fish processing waste, wood materials and landscaping debris, livestock manure, off-spec or expired beverages.
• Figure 4: Composting methods. The questionnaire listed the following categories as options to check: Windrow, container or in-vessel, aerated static pile (ASP), covered ASP, aerated windrow, static pile, vermicomposting, and “other.” Of the 101 facilities responding to this question, 64 utilize the windrow composting method. ASP (29) and static pile (21) were the next most common methods.
• Figure 5: Total amount of feedstocks composted annually. This question reflects all of the feedstocks the full-scale food waste composting facility receives, i.e., not exclusively food waste. The response options were given in tonnage ranges, as shown in the figure. The conversion factor provided by BioCycle is 2 cubic yards/ton. As is evident in Figure 5 (94 facilities responding), the break out in facilities composting less than 100,000 tpy is not dramatically different between the tonnage ranges.
• Figure 6: Total amount of food waste composted annually. This question reflects only the quantity (tons) of food waste composted annually at the full-scale facilities (102 facilities responding). The same tonnage ranges and conversion factor were used. In contrast to the results shown in Figure 5, the vast majority of full-scale composting facilities in the U.S. responding to this question compost >5,000 tpy of food waste (60).
Several trends stand out in terms of full-scale food waste composting infrastructure in the U.S. in 2018:
• The majority of responding facilities have either a solid waste facility permit or a source separated organics (SSO) composting permit allowing food waste (56 and 43, respectively, out of a total of 100 facilities responding to this question). These categories of facilities typically are under more stringent air and water quality requirements than those with permit-by-rule, registration, or exemption categories — and thus require a larger investment in infrastructure and labor. This is a positive trend, as typically facilities with solid waste or SSO permits allowed to accept food waste have more permanent infrastructure designed to manage food waste streams (e.g., versus yard trimmings only).
• Of the 95 facilities responding to feedstocks they are allowed to accept under their regulatory category, the majority are allowed to take all food waste streams (72), including pre and postconsumer food waste (71). In addition, 60 facilities are allowed to accept Biodegradable Product Institute (BPI)-certified compostable paper products, and 53 can take BPI-certified compostable bioplastics products.
• In terms of feedstocks actually accepted (103 facilities reporting), the data tracks pretty similarly to feedstocks allowed. For example, 70 facilities take all food waste streams, including pre and postconsumer food waste.
• Fifty-nine percent of the full-scale food waste composting facilities in the U.S. responding to the questionnaire compost less than 5,000 tons/year of food waste. Of the remaining facility responses, 22 percent are in the 5,000-9,999 tons/year range, 4 percent are in the 25,000-49,999 tons/year range, and 5 percent are in the 50,000-99,999 tpy range. Without tonnage range data from the nonresponding facilities that BioCycle confirmed accept food waste, it is difficult to ascertain a more complete estimate of tons of food waste composted in the U.S.
BioCycle’s 2018 survey of full-scale food waste composting facilities in the U.S. illustrates the challenge of tracking food waste composting in the U.S., especially in terms of tonnages of food waste received and composted. The difficulty in obtaining data can be attributed in part to states’ difficulty in tracking food waste composting activity. In some states, officials can report the permitted annual capacity that a facility is allowed to accept, but do not have data on how much food waste was actually composted.
Another factor is that a significant number of the full-scale food waste composting facilities in the U.S. are privately owned and operated — of the 94 responding to this question, 63 are privately owned and operated, 29 are municipal, one is at an institution and one is operated by a nonprofit. Thus access to data related to actual tonnages composted and annual amount of compost produced can be somewhat limited. Recognizing that reality, BioCycle switched to asking for ranges of annual tons composted, versus a specific quantity.